As much as I loath “death of fiction” articles, I’m compelled by them. I guess it’s the watching a train wreck thing. Except that it’s watching the wreck of the train I’m traveling in.
The “death of fiction” is actually a new and thriving genre. By the time fiction actually dies, each and every reputable journal, magazine, and newspaper (and, um, blog and website and wiki and other doodads) will have predicted and analyzed its demise. Roll over Tolstoy, Augusten Burroughs is singing the blues.
Mother Jones just published a keenly insightful reckoning of lit mags, those subsidized tomes that usually make their homes at the nation’s finer universities, and have carried the torch of publishing challenging and emerging authors for a good century or so. The article is penned by Ted Genoways, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, who’s seen by parents he meets at his children’s activities as practicing an “arcane craft they assumed was kept alive only by a lost order of nuns in a remote mountain convent or by the Amish in some print shop in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.”
Not only does Genoways provide the mathematical analysis of the doomed (the number of creative writing programs multiplied by the number of graduates each year, etc.–which tallies somewhere in the millions, or it might as well), but he provides an interesting angle into how we got into this vicious circle of storytelling demise (not that it could have been avoided) after commercial mags started dropping fiction.
One would think that the rapid eviction of literature from the pages of commercial magazines would have come as a tremendous boon to lit mags, especially at the schools that have become safe harbors for (and de facto patrons of) writers whose works don’t sell enough to generate an income. You would expect that the loyal readers of established writers would have provided a boost in circulation to these little magazines and that universities would have seen themselves in a new light—not just promoting the enjoyment of literature but promulgating a new era of socially conscious writing in the postcommercial age. But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.
I’m not sure if his analysis is entirely true–maybe readers just started watching TV or playing video games or doing drugs or reading blogs by jackasses, present company included. I don’t know.
I remember reading that fiction was the number one reason people bought magazines in the ’20s (hence paychecks of $3,000 to $5,000 for a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerad), but now it’s the last reason anyone would buy a magazine–which is why even magazines with a literary heritage have quit publishing fiction.
Genoways lists several lit journals that have been around for ages (e.g., TriQuarterly, which never accepted one of my real world stories), but are losing their skin to the axe swipes of budget cuts (who’s going to notice, or care, when the journals disappear is the argument of the administration). So, he says, like newspapers, lit journals have to think fast–go out there and get an audience. Now, dammit!!
So, in short, game over.
Still, this odd game of fiction persists–whether in online form or other rogue ways. Although the 822 MFA programs in the nation are like guppies on Viagra breeding out of control, they represent and produce a hungry reading and writing public.
To tell the truth, I read a lot of books–short story collections, poetry, novels, literary criticism, etc.–but I never really read literary journals, despite buying them regularly. There was always something a bit unappealing about them. They were often just overly serious tomes, prohibiting by design. Obdurately opaque. Of the tower, not the street.
Maybe, as Genoways writes, I just never saw myself in them even though I, like every writer I know, submits to them.
Maybe this is a good chance to revisit some of the Bay Area’s lit mags. ZZZYVAA, Fourteen Hills, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, to mention the obvious ones. And, oh yeah, The Three Penny Review and Narrative. Gosh, it suddenly doesn’t feel like ficiton is dying. It feels like it’s everywhere. Just check out this list of Bay Area lit orgs, publishers, magazines, etc.